Game 3 provides big test for Golden Knights’ center-making system

When the Golden Knights line up against the Canadiens for Game 3 in Montreal on Friday (8 p.m. ET; USA Network / Peacock), they’ll face a Habs team that may have finally found its answers at center.

The Golden Knights, though? They face some questions.

In a Game 2 surprise, speedy-and-underrated center Chandler Stephenson could not play. Heading into Game 3 of Golden Knights – Canadiens, Stephenson is considered day-to-day.

Stephenson’s speed a useful asset

As Jesse Granger and Dimitri Filipovic discussed in a recent episode of “The Hockey PDOcast,” the Golden Knights’ top line really found some great chemistry this season. Sure, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty provide the heavy-lifting with their mixture of smarts, skill, and “power winger” tendencies. But Stephenson’s speed fits with Stone and Pacioretty incredibly well, forcing opponents to account for Stephenson as a breakaway threat.

Sure, it’s strange to consider Stephenson a potentially painful loss for the Golden Knights when you realize that they traded so little to get him from the Capitals in late 2019, but it’s true. The Golden Knights missed Stephenson in Game 2, and they’d miss him if he can’t play vs. the Canadiens in Game 3 (and maybe beyond).

Yet, if Stephenson can’t play, Game 3 presents a fascinating test. Can the Golden Knights’ center-making machine do it again?

Golden Knights make life easier for their centers

Again, the Golden Knights would prefer to put Stephenson in his typical center spot between Pacioretty and Stone. Stephenson’s 35 points in 51 games would translate to about 56 points in a typical 82-game season.

That said, who really expected Stephenson to matter to the Golden Knights? And, in your heart of hearts, did you think William Karlsson would be such a gem when the Golden Knights snatched him up at the expansion draft?

Increasingly, it seems like it’s no accident that the Golden Knights keep churning out quality center play, often from the least-expected players.

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Could they come up short in this series, overall? Sure. But even a sometimes-troubling Game 2 effort pointed to the Golden Knights continuing to keep their confounding center factory humming.

Even by “Golden Knights pulling solid centers from thin air” standards, Keegan Kolesar is a dramatically unlikely story. (Check out Jesse Granger’s Keegan Kolesar chronicle at The Athletic [sub required], to get an idea of his surprising journey from recently struggling at the AHL level.)

Last year, Jack Han broke down how the Golden Knights set centers up for success. It’s absolutely worth your time, and provides an interesting retrospective on Stephenson’s rise to effectiveness.

Golden Knights centers need to bake up a pretty simple recipe compared to their peers, via Han:

VGK’s personnel (fast & skilled wingers, active Ds) and system (heavily biased toward strong-side transitions) make the C’s job even easier:

  • Report to a spot
  • Get a puck
  • Move the puck to someone else
  • Look for the next play

While the Golden Knights fell to the Canadiens in Game 2, Kolesar started to click, and might be a strong center option between Pacioretty and Stone if Stephenson can’t play in Game 3. Kolesar’s transition play hammers home the notion that centers can thrive in the Golden Knights’ system, especially with Stone and Pacioretty doing some of the dirty work.

A blueprint to steal?

For some, Vegas will be reviewed positively or poorly based on winning or losing Game 3, and the series. That’s fine. And there’s room to criticize their volume-heavy, sometimes quantity-over-quality system.

That aside, the Golden Knights accomplished something impressive here. Where other teams nervously shiver about a lack of elite centers, the Golden Knights mix finding diamonds in the rough with just flat-out making them.

So many things around their centers are elite, so the Golden Knights make their centers shine.

In the grand scheme of things, Vegas would probably prefer to roll out those prototypical pivots. They probably wish that Cody Glass would get it together.

If the NHL’s indeed a “copycat league,” maybe the truest challenge is to be smart enough to figure out what to copy. For teams seemingly in an endless pursuit of an elite center, maybe the Golden Knights provide that answer: make seemingly average ones look the part.

Update: The Golden Knights are at least experimenting with Alex Tuch between Stone and Pacioretty. Interesting:

CANADIENS VS. GOLDEN KNIGHTS (Series tied 1-1) – series livestream link

Game 1: Golden Knights 4, Canadiens 1
Game 2: Canadiens 3, Golden Knights 2

Game 3: Fri. June 18: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (USA Network / Peacock)
Game 4: Sun. June 20: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 5: Tues. June 22: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 9 p.m ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
*Game 6: Thurs. June 24: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (USA Network / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sat. June 26: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 8 p.m ET (NBCSN / Peacock)

*if necessary

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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